THE FOUR CANADIAN HIGHWAYMEN
THE ROBBERS OF MARKHAM SWAMP.
BY EDMUND COLLINS
The following story is founded on fact, everybody about this part of Canada who is not deaf having heard of the gang at Markham Swamp.
I have no doubt that some of my friends who are in the habit of considering themselves "literary," will speak with despair and disparagement of myself when they read the title of this book. They will call it "blood and thunder," and will see that I am on my way to the dogs.
Well, these people are my friends after all, and I shall not open a quarrel with them. For they themselves have tempted the public with stupid books and essays; and they failed in finding buyers. Therefore they have demonstrated for me that a stupid book doesn't pay; and I will not, even for my best friend, write anything but what the people will buy from me. I am not a Fellow of the R.S.C., and if I produced anything dreary I could not look for the solace of having that discerning association clap their hands while I read my manuscript.
As to my subject being blood and thunder, as some of the litterateurs will describe it, I have only to say that the author of Hard Cash wrote more than a dozen short stories laid upon lines similar to mine. A young man fighting for a place in literature, and for bread and butter at the same time, need not blush at being censured for adopting a literary field in which Charles Reade spent so many years of his life.
By-and-by, when I drive a gilded chariot, and can afford to wait for books with quieter titles and more dramatic worth to bring me their slow earnings, I shall be presumptuous enough to set such a star before my ambition as the masters of English fiction followed.
TORONTO, 1st August, 1886.
THE PRETTY ASTER AND MR. HAM
A GATHERING STORM
TO THE EDGE OF MARKHAM SWAMP.
THE ROBBERS OF MARKHAM SWAMP.
THE WAYS OF ROBBER LIFE.
ROBBERS AT HOME AND ABROAD.
UNDERGROUND MYSTERIES OF THE SWAMP
DISCIPLINE AND OTHER INCIDENTS
BURIED ALIVE IN HIS ROOM
SCENES LEADING TO THE CLIMAX
THE CAPTURE OF THE 'MOST' BEAUTIFUL MAIDEN.
'ALL'S WELL THAT END'S WELL.'
MARY HOLT'S ENGAGEMENT
THE FOUR CANADIAN HIGHWAYMEN;
THE ROBBERS OF MARKHAM SWAMP.
THE PRETTY ASTER AND MR. HAM.
It was the autumn of the year, and the dress of the Canadian woods at that season, forty years ago, differed little from the gaudy garbs of now. Near a small village not far from the town of Little York, I choose as the place for the opening of this true story.
The maple, of all the trees in the forest, was the only one so far frost-smitten and sun-struck. The harvests had been gathered, and the only tenants of the fields were flocks of pigeons that came to feed among the stubble; for many a ripe ear fell from the heads in the tying of the sheaves; many a shower of the golden grain had fallen as the load, drawn by slow oxen, lurched and swayed along the uneven ground.
Nestling in a grove of primeval pines that sentinelled the placid, shining waters of the Don stood a low, wide-eaved cottage. It was completely clad in ivy; and upon the eastern side there was a dull copper tinge through the matted masses of the Virginia creeper.
Many of the earlier flowers had faded; but the pinks and the poppies were still rich in blood; and the sunflower sturdily held up its yellow face like 'a wizened sorcerer of old,' as a fair and gifted friend of my acquaintance puts it. The cottage and the grounds about it were the property of an English gentleman of taste and means. The nearest dwelling had an air of luxury, and round about it stretched wide areas of land from which the harvest of wheat and oats had been taken. Here and there in the distance a group of boys might be seen with their fishing rods in their hands; for at that day the Don stream was not foul by the drainage of fields, and shrunken from the downpour of the sun, and from the loss of its sheltering forest. Trout and often salmon-trout went into its quiet retreats in the face of the spring freshets; and many a congregation of foam bubbles did it hold upon its breast to screen the greedy, vigilant speckled trout.
In a little summer house through whose latticed sides the gadding vines were so interlocked and twined, as to remind you of the legend of Salmacis and Hermes' son, sat a girl. Her wide-brimmed hat rested upon the seat beside her, and round about it was a double girdle of ivy, as if twining there. Looking through the door of the dainty place you could not see the girl's face; for she had turned her head, and her chin was resting upon her slim, white hands, as she read from a book that lay upon her lap.
Her hair you could see, for it hung over her shoulders and down her white dress, like 'a gold flag over a sail.' For myself I usually prefer dark hair for women; but ah! who could have gainsaid the glory of those luxurious coils that hung over that sweet neck and draping the curving shoulders! Through the open doorway the sun streamed upon it; and the soft tangles gleamed like ruddy gold. Hence you will see that the colour was not that insipid 'blonde' with which shallow girls may adorn their heads for the sum of ten cents.
But although her face could not be seen, anyone looking at the balance of the head, the statuesque neck, would have surmised that it was beautiful.
A tall, lithe, well-built young man, who had a few moments before entered the cottage, walked into the garden from the back door. His eye was one that the casual observer would describe as 'full of mischief;' but behind the sunny brightness was a pensive cast. He walked softly towards the arbour, and stood for several seconds looking at its beautiful occupant. Then, in moving his foot, the dry branch of a rose-bush snapped, and the girl turned her head.
'Ah, it is you, Roland—pardon me, Mr. Gray.'
'Yes; I have come here to eat your apples and your peaches; and to despoil the grove of their woodcock.'
'Papa said you were coming some time soon; but I did not know when.'
'Why, I met him this morning at the Don Mills, and told him he would have me during the afternoon and evening. I sent that message distinctly to you, Miss Aster.'
A faint shadow passed over her face; and it was plain that she was a little confused, as she stammered:
'Papa must have misunderstood you.'
'Perhaps, Miss Aster; but—well, I hope he did.' At this moment another person entered the garden. He did not come with the graceful motion, and the easy tread of Roland Gray; but moved wily a pompous stride, swinging his arms almost at right angles with his body. His air you could only describe by the word 'howling'; and he was just the man to immediately catch the attention of a vulgar girl. His hair was as dark as a crow's; and it was as coarse as the bristles of a hog. He was short and rather stout of build; was somewhat 'horsey' in makeup; and had a face rather handsome. But that he was low-bred, there could not be the shadow of a doubt.
'I thought you had eluded me, Aster,' he said in the most familiar way; 'thought you had stolen away up the river with that book.'
'Oh, indeed. I have been reading here during the greater part of the afternoon. Mr. Gray, let me introduce to you Mr. Ham; Mr. Ham, Mr. Gray.' Roland bowed with much politeness; but Ham's stiff, pompous bend was an assertion of superiority.
'I have probably broken in upon your tete-a-tete with this young man, Aster; so I'll take a turn out and have a jaw with your guv'nor.' In a moment he was gone.
'This is your next door neighbour, I presume, Miss Aster?'
'Yes; he and papa are great friends. He consults papa upon nearly everything that he does upon his farm; and papa in turn consults him concerning our affairs.'
'I suspected as much. I presume that you and he are very intimate friends. I observe that he calls you "Aster."'
'I did not ask him to do so; and since he chooses to adopt this familiar fashion I cannot well rebuke him, papa and he are such friends.'
'Then do you permit me to call you Aster?'
'O indeed, I wish that you would do it; and all the time.' As she said this her eyes brightened.
'Thanks, Aster. I now feel that I am on equal footing with the rest. You are sure that you will not mind me Astering you before him? Doing it frequently?'
'Not a bit. I shall be pleased; I shall be very much pleased, because he seemed to take a pleasure in being familiar before you. And we are not such great friends after all.'
'You most not talk nonsense, Aster. It would never do to allow yonder well-tilled acres, that sumptuous dwelling, all those flocks of sheep, and herds of sleek cattle to pass into the hands of any other girl. Imagine pulling down the boundary line and joining the two farms into one! Imagine how your "guv'nor"—as this well-bred Mr. Ham styles him—would open his eyes if any other person should nave the temerity to ask for Miss Aster.'
'Then would you be really glad to see these two farms joined in one? To see me marry Mr. Ham?' Her tremulous eyes questioned his face eagerly. When she began her queries there was in them a flash of mocking mirth; but that had disappeared, and there was now only to be observed a grave, questioning expression there.
My reader is probably desirous of hearing something about Aster's face, notwithstanding the assumption that it was beautiful. As a rule we expect to find chestnut eyes with ruddy-golden hair; but this was not the fact in Aster's case. Her eyes were the colour which men like Theophile Gauthier attribute to Venus: they were not blue, neither were they brown; but they presented in the most fascinating ensemble a grey which at night was a fathomless dusk, and by day that green which you perceive where the sea is a hundred fathoms deep. With the light upon her eye there was a glint of emerald, that witching glare which made Becky Sharpe irresistible. Now imagine an eyebrow, dark as the raven's quill, overarching such an eye, and contrasting itself with the burning gold of the hair, and a skin of Parian white and purity. Then contemplate a softness beside which the velvet upon the petal of a pansy would seem rigid; and this eye large and timorous, and fringed with long, dark lashes!
I do not like the work of cataloguing 'divine wares,' especially when my most elaborate estimate must present a picture crude and mathematical compared with the ideal.
This girl's nose was Roman in type; and was precisely like that which the engraver gives to Annette Marton. The nostrils were finely chiselled, betokening sensitiveness: and I may add that I have never known anybody with a thick nostril to be sensitive.
For a moment Roland's eyes were fixed wistfully upon the girl's, and he did not answer her question. But escape from the enquiring, unflinching stare was out of the question; so he said, mustering all the courage that he could:
'Well, to tell you the truth, Aster, I think you are twenty times too good for this fellow Ham; and therefore I should not like to see you marry him; to see the two farms become one.'
'Oh, I did not think that you considered me in any sense a superior girl; and I must feel highly flattered that you put a higher price upon that superiority than upon the splendid property adjoining my father's.' There was now the merest glint of mischief in her glance; and she was evidently desirous that Mr. Gray should be more explicit in his objection to the match. 'Does Mr. Gray realize what a great compliment he has paid me, a poor rustic, an untutored country girl, with a little knowledge about the bees and clover, and some cunning as to the tricks of breachy cattle? Now wherefore should I not marry Mr. Ham? Do I know more about the English authors, or about the French ones than he does? Am I more gifted in mathematical insight; or do I know more about the history of kings and ancient wars? I can paint the merest bit; and my music is attuned for little else than the heavy heels of rustic swains and clumsy lasses. Now, Mr. Ham is more skilled in painting than I, and more learned in all things acquired from books: pray where, then, is the force of your objection to this joining of hands and farms upon intellectual grounds?'
'I think you miss my meaning, Aster. You cannot sum up the superiority of character by counting the items as you "take stock" in a tradesman's store. The highest and most captivating points in human character, especially in a woman's, often have such an evasive subtlety of outline that you can no more define them than you could the message which some blossom, blooming in a wild, far place, has for the human heart as you stoop over it to drink its perfume, and gloat upon its beauty. But you ask me to be definite: will you take offence, if, upon some points which present themselves to me, I become quite definite?'
'Not by any means, Mr. Gray. I am very anxious to hear everything that you have to say.'
'Well, Aster, I do not admire your friend, Mr. Ham. I think he is a coarse snob; and under an exterior of brusque frankness I believe he is deceitful and—cowardly. I should consider your union with such a person a monstrous sacrifice.'
'Would you have me wait until some man who reaches your ideal came and asked father for my hand? Or would you have me advertise in William Lyon Mackenzie's newspaper. Or, still another and final alternative, would you have me bloom in this sweet place all my days in celibacy?'
'I simply would not have you marry that person, Ham.'
'No other definite wish with respect to me?' Her head was bowed now, and her mischievous, upward glance was very fascinating.
'I have; but I should prefer for the present to keep it to myself.'
A GATHERING STORM.
'Oh! We had better go to dinner, then, had we not: I presume it is about ready.'
'Stay, will you not wear this at dinner?' stooping for a pansy that flourished among the late autumn blossoms.
'Keep if for remembrance when I am away.'
'Oh, but flowers fade; and I could only remember you for a couple of days.'
'Why not press it between the leaves of a book?'
'Oh, I will do that; and I will remember your lecture every time that I open the volume.'
'Thank you; but if you can't think a little bit about myself, I don't want you to bother about my lecture. You can feast yourself in contemplation of your loud and gorgeous friend, Mr. Ham.'
They had entered the house: and at the same moment Asters father and Mr. Ham came in. It was quite plain that these two men were confidential friends; for as they entered the room the host had his arm within that of his guest, and both were so engrossed in their subject—talking in a low tone—that they seemed for a time unconscious of the presence of Aster and Roland. When the host did raise his head he simply gave a cold bow to Roland; and then bestowed a sharp glance upon his daughter. Nor was the rudeness of the host to end here. Turning his back upon Roland he said:
'Mr. Ham and I have been discussing the Marsh, and he thinks that I had better go on with the drainage.'
'It will bring in two years all the money expended in reclaiming it,' put in Mr. Ham. 'Don't you think so, Aster?'
'I don't know, Mr. Ham; I really know very little about such matters.' At this juncture Roland's temper was asserting itself under the slight by the rude parent; so he stepped in among the trio, and looking the girl in the face, said:
'You are quite right, Aster, not to bother your head about bogs and swamps. Let the men attend to all that.' The father was simply amazed; and drawing himself up to his full height he frowned upon the young man. He said nothing, however, and to break the embarrassing silence Aster chimed in:
'I suppose that the city girls of your acquaintance never meddle in such matters; but the truth is, papa always consults me about these things.'
'In the city,' retorted her father, stiffly, 'young women have other concerns; but a girl who is to become a farmer's wife should make the management of stock and the tillage of the soil serious subjects of study.'
'Most certainly,' replied Roland; 'if a girl is to become the wife of a husbandman the farm should be her great concern. But I was not aware that Aster had seriously contemplated taking such a step.'
'I presume, sir,' replied the father, his voice quivering with displeasure,' that there are many of my daughter's affairs which she does not feel bound to disclose to strangers.'
'I had thought that I might congratulate myself as one upon the list of your daughter's friends. Was I not right, Aster?
'I always felt great pleasure, Mr. Gray, in regarding you as my friend, as one of my most sincere friends. Her colour had risen as she ended this sentence; and there was a slight tone of defiance in her voice.
'A fact of which I was not aware,' her father replied, with still rising choler.
'But you should not be too hard upon Aster,' put in Mr. Ham. 'Girls thoughtlessly form friendships. You'll forgive her, I know, for this indiscretion.' Aster turned upon him a look of infinite scorn.
'There is one indiscretion at least, Mr. Ham, for which my father will never have to pardon me.'
'And what is that, pray, Aster?'
'For counting you upon my list of friends, sir.'
'Leave the room instantly, Aster,' her father almost shouted, while his face was purple with rage.
When the girl withdrew Roland turned, and bowing to the host, said:
'Your conduct and your tone, sir, towards myself are so extraordinary, so inexplicable, and so unmerited, that there is nothing for me but to withdraw. As for this person, Mr. Ham, whom you admit to terms of such intimacy, nothing, I assure you, but the sacred shield of your household could have saved him from the punishment which his insolence deserves. However, he will not always be able to shelter himself by these walls, and by the presence of the inmates. I bid you good morning.' So saying he walked out of the room and into the garden where sat Aster, flushed, nervous and miserable.
'I came to say good-bye, Aster; after all that has happened it is impossible for me to remain.'
'I am sure,' the girl said, 'that Mr. Ham must have prejudiced my father against you or he never would have adopted such language and such a manner towards his guest. I feel quite certain that it was not the swamp they were discussing while alone together this afternoon, but your character. From what I surmise of Mr. Ham I believe him capable of traducing you; of actually inventing charges against your reputation.'
'Could he be so infamous? This is surely not possible.'
'But it is possible; and this is the man with whom my poor father, who really has my interests at heart, would have me link my life. For the past four years his wishes in this respect have been horribly plain to me. Oh, it is very dreadful, Mr. Gray; and it will be still worse for me now that you, my friend, must henceforth be estranged from our house.'
'But you will not marry that man, Aster, dear?' He was looking wistfully into her beautiful eyes.
'Oh, no; I shall never do it of my own free will.'
'Farewell, Aster. Though estranged from your father and your house, fate may some time be kind enough to let me see you. Farewell.' And taking her hand into his he raised it reverently, tenderly, to his lips, and imprinted upon it a warm kiss. Then he arose, bowed and went away. For many a bitter day afterwards he remembered the mute misery in her look as he left the garden.
That evening Roland sought out an old Eton schoolfellow, whom he found smoking on the lawn of his uncle's house.'
'Why, you seem rather excited, old fellow; what is wrong? I thought that the fair Aster had a monopoly of your company for this evening.'
'Yes; it had been so arranged. But I found that cad, Ham, there, and he saw fit to insult me. You can now guess, I suppose, the nature of my mission.'
'Hem; things are really serious then. Do you want me to help you through with the affair?'
'If you will, old fellow. My wish is that you wait upon this person in the morning, that he may name a friend with whom you can arrange the meeting. Let it not be later than the following morning. He has, of course, his choice of sword or pistol.'
'I doubt if the man will fight.'
'Then nothing will remain for me but the loathsome job of giving him a horse-whipping. And I presume that you will not be silent as to his cowardice.'
Early on the following morning Frank Harland, for such was the name of Roland's friend, rode away towards Oatland's, the residence of the coarse-haired Mr. Ham. He alighted at the gate, and throwing his bridle rein over a post entered the grounds. Mr. Ham was at the moment crossing the field towards his residence; but when he perceived the early visitor he changed his course and proceeded to meet the comer.
'Oh, how do you do, Mr. Harland? Did not know it was you. It is a long time since we have seen each other. Was over looking at some of my fellows who are clearing the bush of a piece of intervale. Rascals will not work if one's eye is not constantly upon them.'
In a similar strain did he chatter on; but his ease of manner Harland could see was only counterfeited. The early visit and the grave face of the visitor had alarmed him; but he had not the courage to put any of the questions that had turned his face into a note of interrogation. At last they were at the door of the dwelling; and Harland paused upon the steps.
'I come to you this morning, Mr. Ham, upon an important and delicate mission; and should be glad if you would accompany me to your office or library.'
A flush of scarlet came into Ham's face, and it was vivid through the roots of his coarse black beard.
'Certainly; I shall attend to you with pleasure. I hope, at least, that the matter is capable of an amicable and satisfactory settlement. I have always sought to do what is right, and—
'I have no doubt Mr. Ham, that it can be arranged with entire satisfaction.' With these words the visitor seated himself in the chair to which Mr. Ham, with a hand that trembled, pointed.
'I am, sir, the bearer of a message from my old school friend, Roland Gray. What the purport of such a message is you will no doubt very readily guess, when you come to remember the language which you recently employed respecting him, and the threat which your words evoked. I am therefore ready to arrange the terms for a meeting with any friend you may be good enough to designate.'
'I really fail to comprehend what you mean, Mr. Harland.'
'Oh that is impossible, Mr. Ham. There is a code of honour among gentlemen under such circumstances, of which you must certainly be aware.'
The fellow's courage had quite failed him, if the pallor in his swarthy cheek did not utter a huge lie.
'You surely do not mean that you come to propose terms for a duel?'
'I have come just for that purpose; and shall immediately wait upon any friend you will name to me.'
'But there must really be some mistake. I am not aware of having used any language that could evoke the resentment of your friend.' Harland simply shrugged his shoulders.
'I am not here to discuss that point.' And he rose with scorn upon his face. 'I take the word of my friend upon the matter; and he is a gentleman and a man of honour.' At this reply Mr. Ham adopted a new line of policy, and with it a completely altered manner and tone.
'Well, Mr. Harland, suppose that it be as you say with respect to the provocation; there is another feature of the matter which I bring forward with reluctance, considering your relations of friendship with Mr. Gray.' Here he paused.
'Pray, proceed sir.'
'I may say, Mr. Harland, that the repute of Mr. Gray is not the highest; and considering my own character and standing I do not see how it is possible for me to engage in a combat of honour with him. My position as I have said is unquestioned; but I know nothing of your friend save that report speaks of him as an adventurer without character. He has had a good education, and all that, and associates with people of my own standing; but these facts count for little.'
'Pardon me, sir,' Harland replied with a haughty smile. 'I intend that your position in this matter shall be made very plain. I intend to show that one matter alone stands in the way of your acceptance of this challenge.'
'And what, pray, may that matter be?' The fellow was once more ashy pale, and he trembled.
'Your cowardice, sir.'
'What! Do you dare in my own house to use such words?'
'I use them, of course, most deliberately. And now, sir, that you have raised the question of the worthiness of my friend to meet you in a combat of honour, you must first permit me to state that in denying that fitness, every statement that you have made is a falsehood. First, as to his blood: he is a gentleman. And I know that in proving he is your equal in this respect, you will pardon me for asking certain questions of you, as you will my making certain statements of fact respecting him. Pray, sir, who was your father?'
'A gentleman. He was the owner of this property; and held the position of magistrate in this county, as I do.' Mr. Harland bowed.
'And who, then, sir, was his father?'
Mr. Ham winced; turned red; and then stood up, glaring at his interrogator the picture of wild but impotent rage.
'I will not press the question, Mr. Ham; I will answer it. He was what we describe as a "common person." That is, he was not a gentleman.' Mr. Ham's face was dark with rage; but it soon began to assume its ashen colour.
'Now, sir, Mr. Gray's father is a younger son of a fifth earl in the British peerage. He is therefore by blood fit to meet in the field of honour the grandson of a—Nobody. Then, sir, as to the undefined charges against his character, they are gratuitous falsehoods. If, with these facts before you, a refusal of satisfaction is still made, I have only this to say: the unpleasant task of horsewhipping you remains to my friend; while the duty of proclaiming your cowardice remains to me. What is your answer?'
'Though your language has been such as I never believed that anybody would dare use in my house, I am constrained to accept your statements respecting your friend's fitness to meet me in the field of honour.' Then, as a spasm of terror almost convulsed him, he suddenly asked:
'What weapons does he propose? I cannot fence.'
'This is a matter that your friend and I shall arrange. The choice of weapons, however, I may add, rests with your side.'
'Then please wait till I write a note to—Jabez Drummond,' and the fellow, taking a pen, seated himself at his desk. But his fears had so unnerved him that he made several attempts before he could get the pen into the ink bottle; and wasted several sheets of paper before his hand was steady enough to produce legible writing. When he had ended he turned to the visitor:
'Will you not take a glass of spirits before you go? Will you not come and breakfast with me?' His cringing manner was most despicable; and Harland answered in a tone of quiet scorn:
'No, thank you.'
Then placing the letter into Harland's hands, he said:
'Can this not be made a formal encounter? I have read that this thing is often done.'
'What do you mean, Mr. Ham?'
'That we do not, for example, use bullets. Let it be blank charges.'
'Of course you are at liberty to do what you please in this respect,' Harland answered, with irony. 'But we shall use bullets.'
'My God, Mr. Harland, you seem to delight in taking the part of a monster.'
'Good morning, Mr. Ham.'
'But when, where-about what time, I mean, is this to take place?'
'That I shall arrange with your friend. But I may say that there can be no valid reason to prevent it taking place to-morrow at the rise of sun. Good morning, Mr. Ham,' and without further words he left the house, mounted his horse, and rode away.
On the following morning, Gray, accompanied by his second, rode away towards the place of meeting. The sun had not risen, but the eastern arc of the horizon was suffused with deep crimson which terminated in a rosy pink. A small hollow running at right angles to the Don, and known at that time as Sleepy Gulch, was the place chosen for the encounter. As the two men reached the mouth of this gulch they perceived the opposite party upon the brow of the hill. A second or two later another horseman appeared. This was the medical gentleman.
The combatants met, and Roland bowed haughtily to Mr. Ham. To Drummond he said simply:
'Good morning, sir.' Harland took his friend aside for a moment. There was a look of mingled disgust and merriment in his face.
'Merciful heaven,' he said, 'look at the size of our friend Ham.'
'I have noticed it,' replied our hero, with a contemptuous curl of his lip.
'I firmly believe he has half the bedclothes of his establishment wrapped about him,' Roland interrupted.
'Proceed with business, Mr. Harland.' That gentleman, walking up to Mr. Drummond, said:
'I wish a word with you-Is your master indisposed?'
'He declares that he took a violent cold, and has been suffering of shivers all night.'
'I am very sorry; at the same time I must point out to you the propriety of at once requesting him to unwrap, that we may proceed. You are aware, I presume, of the quantity and denomination of the apparel for such an occasion.' Drummond joined the bulky Mr. Ham; and it was noticed as he conversed that that gentleman turned from his morning pallor to a positive yellow. He at first seemed to refuse; but at last, with a cry much like the low whine of a terrified animal, he began to take off his wraps. In doing this he turned his back upon the other party.
'You will pardon me, gentlemen,' Harland said, as he stepped to the front; 'but I believe I have the right under such extraordinary circumstances to obtrude myself here.'
'What do you mean, sir? How dare you come here?' cried Mr. Ham in his fear and rage.
'To see that you are disrobed properly, Mr. Ham. If you will permit it the medical gentleman here will decide whether upon such a windless, sunny morning, you require all this raiment. At least you will not require all this leather,' he exclaimed, as he drew out a huge piece which had been fitted so as to cover the entire front of the hero's body down to the hips. 'You don't consider wraps of this sort necessary for a man with a cold, do you, doctor?' Harland asked, turning to the medical gentleman.
'No; I have not during my practice seen such remedies for colds,' the doctor replied, with a humorous twinkle in his eye. The high-bred Mr. Ham was a most pitiable object to look upon as his friend proceeded to divest him of a horse blanket.
'As a real guarantee against added chill, Mr. Ham should have provided himself with a buffalo robe, Mr. Drummond.' Harland observed —"skinny aide out and woolly side in," you know. We could not have objected so much to that.'
'What!' gasped out the brave Mr. Ham, while a gleam of hope shot through his eyes like a sunbeam, 'Mr. Drummond could ride away and get me one in fifteen minutes.'
'Mr. Drummond,' replied Harland, 'this would be absurd. The thing will be all over in three minutes.'
'But it would keep me warm going home.'
'For only three minutes longer, however,' Harland again replied, addressing the second. 'Besides,' he added, 'it might be'—and here stopped short with the manifest intention of torturing the cowardly wretch. It was noticed by Roland that Ham was constantly casting his eyes up the hollow, as if expecting somebody. At last a thought flashed upon him.
'Mr. Harland, I believe that craven has notified the officers of justice, and that he expects them to come and break up the affair. Let us therefore proceed. He may keep on the remainder of his wraps. No delay; measure off the ground.' The two seconds then measured off fifteen paces, and stopped.
'Not such a short distance as that!' shrieked Mr. Ham.
'Why, I thought your friend never fired except with a shot-gun at crows?' Harland observed. 'But it appears that he is a crack shot. And so generous, too; since the greater distance is intended no doubt for the safety of Mr. Gray.' This was said in a tone just loud enough to be heard by all the rest.
'Ask Mr. Ham what distance he would propose—I have no objection to the inquiry.'
'What distance would you propose, Mr. Ham!' inquired the second.
'My pistol will carry at least a hundred yards; I drove a ball through an inch board with her yesterday. Why not make it, say eighty paces?'
'Because, Mr. Drummond,' Harland replied, 'over fifteen paces is "poltroon distance," and, besides, our pistols do not carry effectively more than twenty paces. We will not, however, under any circumstances, fight on "poltroon distance."'
'I agree,' replied Mr. Drummond.
'Now then, gentlemen, take your places.'
The doctor whispered to Roland: 'Is it fair, quite, to fight him when he says that you are a crack shot, and that he has never fired?'
'He lies, doctor; it is the other way. I learn that from childhood he has been firing at all sorts of things with pistols; and I have never fired a pistol shot in my life.'
'Your places, gentlemen,' cried Drummond. Roland was already at his post; but his opponent was not yet upon his ground.
'Why this unseemly haste?' he gasped. 'I am so unsteadied by my illness, that I am really not in a position yet to take my ground.' Harland spoke a word or two to Drummond, and then said in a voice distinct and audible to all:
'If after I call three Mr. Ham is not upon his ground the affair shall be declared off. My other alternative will then be in order. One, two——'
'Hold, hold, I'm coming,' groaned the coward, as he took his place.
'Now, gentlemen, your backs to each other,' said Harland. 'I shall count one, two, three, and at the end of the last count each man shall wheel and fire.'
'If I fall I shall have you proceeded against, Drummond-you are in a conspiracy to murder a sick man.'
'I did not know that Mr. Ham was an Irishman,' chimed in Harland.
'Oh!' groaned the respectable Mr. Ham.
'Two—three!' Simultaneously with the word 'three' there was a pistol shot. The gentlemanly Mr. Ham had fired before his opponent turned. Before he could see the result of his shot, Gray who had turned promptly at the word, fired; and with a frightful yell Mr. Ham fell to the earth, and lay there. The doctor ran up, and putting the fingers of his left hand upon the fellow's wrist, with the other made search for the wound.
'Here it is; you have shot him in the left side.'
'Do you think it is fatal?' Roland asked composedly.
'I cannot say; but I really have little hope otherwise.' It was hard to weigh the value of this statement. It was decidedly an equivocal one.
'I would most certainly advise you to get out of the way, Mr. Gray. He seems to have no pulse. By the way, are you hit?'
'Good God, where?' He pointed to his breast; and to the horror of Harland blood was oozing through his waistcoat.
'Let me attend to you,' the doctor, who had the heartiest sympathy for our hero, cried, springing up.
'No; you must attend to him. Besides, as I expected, here come the officers, good-bye.' In a moment he was upon his horse, and galloping across the stubble-stretches, and clearing the snake fences that divided field from field, like a bird. The magistrate and two constables, for such were the officials that comprised the interrupting party, no sooner saw Roland in flight, than they turned in pursuit at a rate of speed equal to his own, and called upon him to surrender. He made no reply.
'Then, men, fire upon him,' the magistrate shouted. One of the constables raised his carbine and fired.
TO THE EDGE OF MARKHAM SWAMP.
'Swish-h-h' went the clumsy slug past Roland's ear. He grasped his revolver; and the resolution of the moment was to stand at bay and fight the churls. But the reflection not occupying the hundredth part of a second showed him that such a course was not to be thought of. His antagonist had fallen; but this was only a crime of honour. To shoot the Queen's officers would be a vulgar felony. So he kept upon his course, confident in the mettle of his noble horse, who with nostrils distended, and neck thrust out, would now lay back one ear and now another, as if to listen to the progress of the pursuers.
At last our hero reached the road, which lay along a level country skirted on one side by pine groves, and upon the other by the recently-harvested fields. Turning in his saddle he perceived that while he had distanced two of his pursuers, the third, the fellow with the blunder-buss, was gaining slightly upon him. He noticed also that the officer was engaged as the horse galloped along in putting another charge into his weapon. About fifteen minutes more of fierce riding followed; and although Roland's horse showed no signs of exhaustion, the pursuing beast, which was taller in limb and more lithe, was remorselessly, though slowly, lessening the distance. The road now began to sink into a valley, and thick forest grew upon either side. Roland's pursuer was not more than fifteen paces behind, when the fugitive heard a scuffing sound. He but too well divined what it was; and the next moment his horse fell to the road, struck by the slugs from the pursuer's carbine.
'It is as well,' muttered our hero, as he sprang away from the gasping beast. The next moment he had disappeared in the dense, dark wood. Ah! how sheltering, how kindly, seemed that sombre sanctuary, with its dark grey tufts beneath his feet, and the thick, dusk-green branches of the fir and pine! The gloomy background seemed to invite him further into the heart of its shade and silence. No bird whistled through the glaucous green of this silent, majestic wood; nor was there any treacherous bramble to crackle beneath his feet. For upon this chill, grey carpet no flood of sunshine ever came to coax tiny sprays out of the ground; and the layers of fine needles, or tufts of dank, sunless moss were soft and noiseless as down under his tread. The stately trees grew far enough apart to allow him to move with considerable speed, and after he had satisfied himself that he was beyond the sight of his pursuers, he changed his course and proceeded in a direction almost opposite to that by which he had come.
He believed that such a move could not fail to delude the sleuth hounds, who would suppose that he continued his flight directly away from the scene of his offence. In a little while he sobered his pace down to a walk; and shortly afterwards he sat down in the sombre solitude to ponder his situation.
Full well he knew that before the set of sun nearly every inhabitant of the county of York would hear of the deed; and that a hue-and-cry would be speedily raised by the officers of the law.
It is true that duelling was at this period as much in vogue in genteel circles as it was in England; yet the victor in an affair beyond the water, had no difficulty in slipping away from the scene of his offence, and in passing across the Channel. Here he remained for a decent season; and when he returned, the law in deference to its toleration of the code of honour, shut its eyes. Friends of the vanquished never, or hardly ever, instituted proceedings.
But in the colonies it was different. Godliness had taken a deeper hold in the soil; the Puritans of New England, who, in their zeal, had burned old women because they were guilty of sorcery, had much to say in correcting morals, and removing evil. The duel they considered one of the most odious sins of society; and no doubt it seemed all the more odious to them because it was the sin of an exclusive class who put an estimate upon honour that passed the understanding of men who believed it to be their duty to offer the left cheek after the right had been smitten.
It is only just, however, to say that this was a precept more honoured in the breach than the observance. The long-lipped, witch-burner would draw blood with his knuckles; but he drew the line at the sword. The state of public feeling upon duelling Roland very well knew; and as he thought of Aster, with her sunny hair and glorious, yearning eyes, and the exile that lay before him, a numb feeling of despair began to gather about his heart. He was able to persuade himself that she would look upon the unfortunate affair as necessary for the assertion of his honour; but how could he hope for any further happiness, a criminal in the law's eye, and an exile from the country of Aster?
Why, however, he asked himself, was Aster the central figure in the picture of desolation that he was painting? He had never given her more than a passing thought before; had never thought of her save as a frank, generous, sunny-hearted girl. Now he began to recall words that she had spoken of which he had never before taken heed. The rippling laugh, half like the notes of a silver bell, and half like the trilling of a bob-o-link's song, came back like music now into his desolate soul, making him all the more disconsolate that he was never again to hear it. But had she not looked wistfully into his eyes when he took her hand in the garden to say good-bye? Was such a thought not comforting now? Ah no. Too truly has our poet sung it:
"Comfort! comfort scorned of devils, this is truth the poet sings; —That a sorrow's crown of sorrow is remembering happier things."
Would he, Roland began to ask himself, have been hurried into the hasty words, the passionate feeling, which were really the origin of all this woe, but for his regard for her? No; he saw it all plainly now. He had courted this quarrel; he obtained what he sought, and now did he hold in his hands the bitter fruit.
'But he might have had his will; she is a lone girl; and her unnatural father was no less eager that the marriage should be than the baseborn himself. Let it be!' Then a startled gleam came into his face.
'Ah, the sleuth-hounds are everywhere around,' he cried, as faint and confused shouts came from the road and the country side. 'But I am safe here, at least for a time;' and he looked gratefully at the grand sheltering solitude about him. No footprint desecrated this sanctuary of nature.
He had taken nothing to eat since the evening before; and pangs of hunger began to gnaw him. He walked a short way toward a large, grey rock near which he heard a gurgling sound; and as he advanced he saw that a little stream of water gushed from beneath the base. He drank copiously of the pure, cold spring, and bathed his temples; but in carrying the water to his forehead he noticed that one of his hands was crusted with blood. Then for the first time had the thought of his wound recurred to him.
Stripping himself of his coat, waistcoat and shirt, he perceived that he had lost an immense quantity of blood. Tearing a piece off his linen shirt he proceeded to moisten the coagulated blood to ascertain the nature of his hurt. He soon found that the ball had hit him obliquely upon the breast, glanced, and gone round, making a serious flesh wound. Probing with his finger he located the ball which had lodged in the muscles under his left arm. Taking his knife he inserted the hook with which it was luckily supplied, and, after much pain, and rending of the flesh and muscles, extracted the bullet. The bleeding soon became less copious; and from this he took much heart, for he was assured that no artery was severed. Having washed the wound he proceeded to make some lint, which he applied as skilfully as a surgeon could have done, after which he went to a fir tree and therefrom obtained a quantity of balsam.
His long experience as a hunter had taught him how to manage wounds; and he now prepared a number of narrow strips of linen. Upon each of these he spread a quantity of the fir balsam; and then put the strip across the wound. About a dozen similar pieces were laid across, and these held the wound together; after which he placed a couple of larger slips along the wound at right angles to the shorter pieces. He then dressed and seated himself upon a tree-bole, and once more became buried in his gloomy reflections.
It was not of his love that next he thought, but of his wretched predicament. He was aware that in his own territory he was exposed to constant danger of detection, yet he plainly saw that escape to the United States was impossible in his present apparel. The hue-and-cry would describe him accurately; the law would put a price upon his head; and what the cupidity of ordinary mankind is he well knew. He had a half dozen sovereigns and a bank-note in his pocket-book; but were he to attempt to purchase rougher clothes attention would at once be attracted to him. As the afternoon wore on hunger continued to torment him with increasing keenness. Knowing that upon the elevated ground he would be likely to find a hard-wood grove, he set out, and, after an hour's tramp, was rewarded by finding himself in a grove of beeches. He gathered nigh unto a pint of nuts which gave him some relief; and, as he passed outward again to the pine region, he found a rowan tree loaded with crimson fruit. He ate several bunches of the bitter berries, and, having sated his appetite, filled his pockets. Then, seeking a dense part of the wood, he lay down to rest. He had resolved that when night came he would set out for Markham, and, trusting that there were several farm houses near that settlement whose inmates had not heard of the duel, he determined to obtain food. What he would do afterwards, fate alone should determine. Laying his head upon a mossy hummock, comfortable as a pillow of eider down, despite the anguish of his heart, and the stinging of his wound, he was soon asleep, and dreaming of days when their was neither peril nor sorrow.
When he awoke he could perceive through the forest a slight tinge of crimson in the west; and he knew that the day was done. At first he could not collect his wits to remember how he had come hither, but a sharp pain in his breast brought back the truth in its naked hideousness. Why should he ever have awakened? Was he not happy in that sweet, sweet state wherein the present had no place, and the happy past was lived again? For while he slept he once again met Aster. Tears were in her glorious eyes, and with trembling lips she told him that she thought he would never come. And, taking him to the bank of the little stream that brawled down the rough slope of her father's common, she made him vow that he would never again leave her pining. And taking her head upon his shoulder he looked into her beautiful eyes, and he read in their tender, glimmering depths the secret that she loved him. Ah, how happy was her lot? He kissed the upturned mouth and held her to his heart. They pledged themselves to one another for ever and ever. Then the angel who watched over his sleeping flew away, and he was awake.
A sound came to his ears, Alas! it was not the music of his beloved Aster's voice—but the baying of bloodhounds.
'Merciful God' what chance have I with bloodhounds in this wood?' Roland exclaimed as he arose. Then he set out, as fast as he could, in the same direction which he had pursued during the morning. He was well aware that the hounds were brought into the wood at the point where he had entered it; and that they were now far upon his track. Reflecting upon his hunting experience he concluded that the cries which he could now hear, whenever he paused, were little more than half a mile behind him.
A man fleeing through such a wood as this has little need for speed with only human pursuers upon his track. But with a pack of bloodhounds holding the trail, and that keep well in advance of their followers, it was far otherwise. It was only necessary to follow the baying pack; and pursuit could thus be maintained at a pace fully as swift as the flight.
But Roland was weak from the loss of blood, and from hunger which the scant supply of beech-nuts, and the bitter rowanberries, only in small measure allayed; so it was very plain that his capture was only a question of time. But the labyrinth of forest-aisles now began to grow dimmer, and a throb of hope came into his heart as he thought of the coming darkness. Yet in this wilderness the dogs would know their game; and there was no escape by clambering a tree! Meanwhile he redoubled his exertions, now slightly altering his course. When it was fairly dark he emerged from the wood upon the road by which he had made his flight in the morning.
'Thank God. Here the dogs, among so many other scents, must miss mine.' He perceived to his great joy that there was not a star in the heavens; nor was there to be seen any of the dusky yellow in the south-east which marks the rising of the harvest moon.
The wind was blowing from the south-west, and the fugitive's eyes could see that large masses of dark cloud were rolling before the wind, and gathering to leeward like a mighty army, which halts its forces to prepare for battle. A heavy storm was brewing, and there would be no light from the moon. Providence indeed had been kind to Roland, giving in the morning the shelter of His forest's sanctuary, and now the kindly shadow of His clouds.
He had lost the sound of the pursuers, and concluded that they must have either returned for the night, or sped the opposite way. He had not gone far, when he was startled by the sharp whinny of a horse. His first impulse was to avoid the beast; but upon consideration he resolved to reconnoitre. Approaching cautiously he found that the cause of his alarm was one horse only, tied to a tree which grew by the roadside. His sight having become accustomed to the darkness he was soon able to assure himself that no human being was nigh. Proceeding then to the animal, which he found saddled—it belonged no doubt to one of the pursuers who had left it there while in the woods with the hounds—he tightened the girths, mounted and rode away. This was indeed a godsend! He had not proceeded far when he saw a horseman approaching, The stranger stopped and pulled rein.
'Hullo, Oswald; that you? I thought you should never come.' Judge the consternation to discover in the voice of the speaker that of Aster's father, the man who was the cause of all the woe and mischief. When his emotion passed he could have smitten the misguided man to the earth. Disguising his voice thoroughly, for he was an accomplished mimic, he replied:
'This is not Mr. Oswald. I am from York. Rode by the Yonge street road. I bear a special dispatch from the Government to the magistrate at Markham respecting steps to be taken for the apprehension. Good-bye, sir. I am in haste.' Before the other could reply Roland was trotting away briskly. After an hour's sharp riding he slackened his pace and allowed his horse to walk along the road.
The land dipped here slightly and the fugitive judged that he must be in the neighbourhood of River Rouge, and not far from Markham.
The forest seemed to grow thicker, and as far as he could judge through the dark, it appeared draggled and intermixed with larch and cedar. It was a lonesome spot; and Roland marvelled to himself if this could be the swamp that concealed so many mysteries, and filled all the country-side with alarm. While he was thus musing a figure sprang out of the bush and seized his bridle; at the same moment the shining barrel of a pistol gleamed in his eyes.
'Surrender, fugitive duellist!' a powerful voice shouted.
'Dismount.' Roland did so; but move which way he would the weapon still glittered in his face. As we have seen Roland had resolved that there should be no more spilling of blood, else his courage and dexterity might have enabled him to cope even with this daring captor. He was astonished to see but one person present, and looked around him for the others. But as his searching gaze could reveal nothing but the sturdy figure at his side, and the gloom-wrapped trees at the roadside, he began to reproach himself bitterly for not having been more alert. It was bitter to think that after all the excitement, strain and strategy of the morning, it should fall to his lot to be trapped in this way in the darkness of the night.
He began to wonder that his companion gave no whistle or other call for help, but remained silently standing upon the road, one hand upon the horse's bridle, the other holding the menacing pistol. At last the captor spoke.
'Know you who I am?'
'A Queen's officer.'
'Ha, ha, ha!' And the man's strong, cruel voice resounded far through the solitudes of the wood.
'No! I am not a Queen's officer; but I am captain of the sturdy men who have made yonder bush a terror to the Province of Upper Canada. I have heard about the duel and the fall of Ham. You have rid the world of at least one worthless cur, and this is why I waited for your coming, to offer you, for the present, the security of our dense bush and treacherous bogs.'
Roland hesitated. The fellow seemed to speak the truth; therefore what had he to fear with respect to his personal safety. He had some money and a watch; this the highwayman could have had now for the asking. Yet these men bore the reputes of atrocious criminals to whom every sort of lawlessness was familiar. However, he need not compromise himself by taking part in their enterprises. The main thing was the chief of the band had offered him an asylum; and as a last resort, if the place became intolerable he could flee from it.
'Yes; I will accept your offer.'
'Good. I take your word. Walk at my side, keeping close; for the path is narrow.' So saying the two moved onward, the robber leading Roland's horse.
THE ROBBERS OF MARKHAM SWAMP.
After proceeding a few paces the robber chief tied his horse to a tree, and then bidding Roland follow, made his way through the dark and silent masses of the wood.
Several times our hero, despite his experience of forest travel, was tripped up by tree shores, or a tangle of underbrush; and once his forehead struck a sturdy limb with such force that he became for several seconds stupefied. The voice of the highwayman recalled him.
'Hallo, Master Duellist, are you trying to escape me?'
'I gave my word,' replied Roland, 'touching that matter. But I am not experienced in such travel as this.'
'No,' sneered the robber, 'you great heroes of the city and level field are mighty as travellers only upon the open road.'
'Your opinion as to that gives me no concern,' our hero replied. 'But I have eaten nothing since yesterday save some beech-nuts and a few rowan-berries. Besides I have lost much blood.'
'Are you wounded?'
'Where?' Roland informed him.
'Is it bleeding still?' He likewise informed him upon that point.
'I see you are not such a calf after all;' and then Roland heard him mutter something about 'an acquisition to the band.' The words made the matter clear enough now to our hero. This ruffian had not saved him because he had shot Ham, but because he wanted an addition to his force. Knowing that there was a price upon Roland's head, he believed that he would find little difficulty in bending him to his infamous ends.
'Here; let us take your hand. We shall never reach home at this rate.' It was with a feeling akin to a shudder that Roland felt the touch of his guide's hand; but the arrangement was successful, and the two got over the ground at a rapid pace. Every maze and tree in that dismal swamp seemed to be known to the guide; and he swerved to right and left,—sometimes so changing his course that it seemed as if he were retracing his steps—with such astonishing swiftness as to completely bewilder our hero.
'I wonder,' observed Roland, 'that the law does not reach you here by the aid of bloodhounds; they filled the wood with dogs this morning for my benefit.'
'They tried that twice, but it didn't turn out profitable,' replied the robber.
'How did you elude them?'
'Why we simply posted ourselves at convenient points and caught the intruding idiots. Out of a pack of twelve only one got out of the swamp alive.'
'Have the constabulary ever sought you here?'
'Oh, frequently. Once they were permitted to roam about through the swamp without molestation. They found nothing for all their searching but a shed built on the lake's edge, and evidently used by fishing parties. They then returned and declared that the story of the swamp being infested was all fudge. A couple of years passed, during which many a bloated butcher and cattle dealer was relieved of his purse; and a few who were foolish enough to dispute about the coin were despoiled of more than their money. A girl also disappeared; a buxom lass with yellow hair and blue eyes, about whom half the country bumpkins had gone nearly wild.'
Our hero shuddered at the recital; but the robber heeded not his emotion.
'Then came indisputable proof that only persons living in the jolly swamp could have stolen the girl, taken the money, and cracked the few numb-skulls; so they resolved, in the words of the newspapers of Muddy York, to "clean out the odious nest."
'A force of twenty constables, with about an equal number of citizens, turned out and approached the swamp. The force here numbered ten in all. Ah! but we were a sturdy band then. Well, as I have said, they came, the intrusive damned fools, to the swamp, and scattered their forces about. They found nothing; and this is the only fact they ascertained: that when they assembled at Reynold's inn, of the force of twenty-one that entered the swamp, only nine returned. They waited till the morrow for their missing comrades, but they came not. Yet not a cry was heard, though there was no wind among the leaves, and when murders are done the people say, "you year shrill screams." Neither was a pistol shot heard, or so much as the clang of a dagger. Ah! but it was the sport to see bow discreetly the thing was managed! I see, young man, you would like to find out the modes. Well, history not infrequently repeats itself in this dark wood; and I have little doubt that you will have an opportunity of discovering how we accomplish our ends, and why the silence.'
'Strange to say,' the robber went on, 'the good people of York took the matter tamely enough, and many declared their belief that those men who never came back must have fallen into shaking bogs or hollow swamps. 'Ha, ha!' the fellow chuckled, 'they were not very far astray! The "hollow swamp" was almost like an inspiration. Well, youngster, we have been frequently visited by posses since, but for the greater part we permit them to roam our labyrinths unmolested. Now and again, however, one, or two, or three intruders are missing; but considering what a wonderful man-trap the swamp is, these small matters do not make very much commotion in the outside world. But we are almost at our journey's end.' As he spoke the ruddy glare of a fire could be seen a short way off.
A huge rock lifted itself in the wood, and behind this the gang had assembled. Their manner at once became changed upon the approach of the captain; but they could not conceal their astonishment at the sight of our hero; for they had read in their leader's eyes that he was not destined for harm.
'I bring a friend, lads, who is henceforth a member of our family. He pinked his man to-day in a duel, and was clearing off in a devil of a hurry, when I offered him our hospitalities.'
'Pinked his man, aye?' exclaimed one of the gang, a hideous looking ruffian with small eyes, bushy eye-brows, and draggled red hair. 'He seems better cut out to pink toads.'
'If we want your opinion upon such matters we will ask for it,' the captain observed, looking sternly upon the insulting ruffian.
'We are to live together, so we may as well commence by getting acquainted with one another, youngster,' the captain said. 'This fellow, whose tongue has just wagged, is Joe Murfrey, a famous blackguard in his own particular line. Yon respectable flaxen gentleman,' pointing to a villainous looking person with a greenish skin, of flaxen hair, and an unsteady, treacherous eye, 'gives moral tone to our little household. He, on occasion, devotes himself with much ardour to religious exercises. For the sake of being familiar we call him Jud Sykes.'
The hateful looking scoundrel bowed and said:
'I am happy to welcome you to our poor abode.' And as he drew near: 'Ah, so young and so fair, to stain his soul with the blood of a fellow-creature! Oh, my poor young man, repentance, repentance with us here in nature's sanctuary, where the grandeur of God's works, without any of the disfigurement of man, is all that remains to you now. I welcome you, my poor fallen son;' and he stretched out his hand. But our hero simply gave the blasphemous vagabond a look of scorn and turned away.
'There is one other, the fourth and last of the male members of our humble dwelling, to whom let me also present you. This is a young gentleman of a very meek and unobtrusive disposition. He never raises his voice to a high pitch, or makes a noise when performing any little job that requires skill. It would seem as if his good parents were inspired in bestowing a name upon him. They called him Lifter. We have slightly varied the name, took a small grammatical liberty with it, so to speak. We call him The Lifter. Let me, Mr. Gray, introduce you to The Lifter.' Roland bowed with the same air of haughtiness and disgust. But now that he was among the unholy crew he felt that he must make the best of the situation, conformably, of course, with his sense of honour. The description given of this miscreant by the robber chief indicates his appearance. He was somewhat below the medium height, and though not stoutly built, revealed strongly knit shoulders, and muscles enduring as twisted steel. He had a fawning air, a dark, rolling eye, and most villainous brows.
'These young women attend to the domestic portion of our labours,' the chief said, 'This one is our Nancy, and this is Silent Poll.'
Roland bowed to each of the girls in turn; and he perceived that while both were handsome, they had that bold, free stare, which must always repel a man of refined or proper feeling. The handsomer of the two was Nancy; and Roland imagined that he perceived behind the forwardness of her manner a kind of reckless despair; that indescribable sort of vivacity which arises when hope, and honour, and everything that is dear are dead, and only what is worse remains to live for. This girl had evidently at some time moved in a society different far from this; for her speech was somewhat refined, and her bearing that of a woman more or less well-bred.
From the moment of Roland's arrival she seemed to be more thoughtful; and the melancholy in her eyes became more pronounced! He seemed—if one could judge of the varying expressions in her face—to call back within her a thousand memories long dead; to bring before her mind again a world which she had forgotten. Her eyes were almost constantly upon him; and when he spoke she listened with eagerness to every syllable that he uttered.
One of the first to perceive this was Joe; and a hideous light gleamed in his dull and sunken eye.
As for Silent Poll; not one word could be said in her favour. What she once might have been God alone can tell; but she seemed well content with the vile lot to which she had fallen. Indeed, when Roland saw her flaming eyes, and heard her speech, he doubted if companionship different from this had ever been vouchsafed her.
Preparations for supper had been progressing for some time before the captain's arrival. In front of the bluff of rock blazed a fire made of birch and maple, and on a spit before this a huge piece of venison was roasting. A hideous old woman, with eyes like a rattlesnake, and draggled hair coloured like the moss upon an aged fir, stood by the spit, which every few moments she turned. Silent Poll had some lard in a cup, and a small quantity of this she put upon the meat each time that the hag turned the spit. Nancy extended a sort of camp-table and upon it placed the drinking vessels; and Roland perceived that these lawless persons lived in a very sumptuous manner.
Nor can it be said that the white bread, the butter, the large mealy potatoes, and other vegetables, together with the juicy haunch before the fire were indifferent to his stomach after his long ride.
'I'll get the grog,' growled Murfrey; and turning he disappeared, seeming to sink directly into the earth. In a few seconds he returned with a small keg which he placed beside the table.
The rays of the fire enabled our hero to get an indistinct view around; and he observed that they were surrounded by dense tangled forest, with the face of the rock forming an immediate screen from outside intrusion.
'You wonder, I presume, youngster,' the chief observed, 'why our good company run the risk of building a fire at night in this wood. Well, such an indiscretion we are not guilty of when the moon is out; but to-night no foot save a practised one could make its way through the underwood.'
'But might they not carry lanterns?'
'I grant you; but a light is an object that we as well as they can see. Besides, coming here in the dark is about the last thing in this wide world that the guardians of order would think of doing. Their visits were too fatal in the open day for that.'
At the table the liquor circulated freely, and as it was cognac, twenty years old, as the robber chief swore, it soon brought up the spirits of the gang. To his great disgust, Roland perceived that the girls drank almost as freely as the men. After Nancy had quaffed a couple of horns, the melancholy which the new-comer had a little while before noticed so plainly in her face disappeared; and she began to bestow marked attentions upon the handsome and well-bred stranger. Not an act of hers escaped the jealous eye of Murfrey; and as the miserable girl was in the act of passing something to Roland, the robber gave her a violent blow upon the arm.
'You are too d—d ready with your attentions,' he growled, and then swore a terrible oath. Nancy turned and looked upon him with flashing eyes; and ferocious and bloody as the man was, she did not fear him. A little later she raised her horn and looking the stranger in the face, said:
'I pledge you welcome, sir; will you drink good-will and long friendship with me?'
Roland, as we have seen, had from the first resolved to make the best of the deplorable set, so with easy courtesy and good nature, he raised his horn and said, 'I drink with pleasure.' But before he had swallowed his sip Joe had risen from his seat and reached his side; and without word or warning dealt him a severe blow on the head. Roland's blood boiled in his veins and were his life the issue ten times over he would not submit to the indignity. He sprang from his chair, weak though he was from his wound.
'Infamous ruffian,' he thundered, 'How do you dare?' and striking the desperado once, twice, upon the temple felled him like a beast upon the turf. For a moment the villain lay, as if he had received his death-blow; then he moved, raised himself, and was upon his feet again. At first he reeled and staggered, though not from brandy; and putting his hand to his hip he drew his knife. Roland saw the reflection of the glittering blade flash upon the front of the sombre forest; but he did not move. The miscreant approached him with his weapon raised; but our hero was prepared. Drawing his pistol he cocked it. 'One step forward and I blow your brains out.' Further mishap was prevented by the chief who sprang between the two.
'Enough,' he cried, raising his hand, 'replace your weapons; and reserve them for other uses. You have my congratulations, youngster. You are the right stuff; just such metal as we want here. As for you, Joe, you got what you deserve richly. Not another word.' No other word was spoken; but the robber glared upon the victor like a foiled beast.
As for the robber himself whose appearance I have not sought to describe so far, his stature was certainly a splendid one. He stood not less than six feet two inches high; his chest was full, and his neck and limbs such as a sculptor might take as a model for a Hercules. His face was not unhandsome, but it was marred by an all-prevading expression of cruelty. In his eye there was no room for pity or remorse; nor was there a feature in his face that could harbour a generous or kindly impulse; or one of honour. His hair was dark, but tinged with grey; and the cruelties of the man's career had left wide and horrible furrows extending from the corners of his mouth into his cheek. It would be too generous to say that the man had been born under an evil star; that some great cross had come to him and turned his being to evil. For there was no trace of any good; the face, the voice, the tout ensemble of the man were evil. Roland simply shuddered as he looked upon him; and he shuddered too when he reflected that the monster had set his heart to turning him into a highwayman.
The gang lighted their pipes when the supper was ended, and the girls cleared the board. Poor Roland, with the cold heavy hand of Despair squeezing his heart, walked a few paces away from the camp fire, and sat upon a tree-bole. In a little while the fire had grown so low that no light came from it save the scarlet glow from the smouldering embers. A deep gloom was everywhere; but it was not darker than the shadow that had fallen upon his life. Suddenly the gates of the dusk seemed to open, and a flood of silvery light fell upon the world. Looking, he perceived that the clouds were breaking, and through a rift in the pall the moonlight flood had been sluiced upon the darksome swamp. With the light came a stirring of hope at his heart; and for a minute he surrendered himself to the sweet thought that a time might come when he, with honour untarnished, could issue from the toils, and take his place in that world from which his crime had banished him.
'It will be forgotten in two or three years at most,' he mused, and at the end of that time she may still remember. And then divers avenues of escape from the hideous toils were open to his imagination. Why could he not, after the lapse of a few months, disguise himself, go boldly out of the wood and cross the frontier? In a republican city he could engage in some honourable occupation; and perhaps his beloved might care to hear something of his fortunes. His dreams had become very rosy when he heard the voice of the chief asking him if he did not want to 'go to bed to-night.'
He saw no camps, no blankets, no dwelling, and he marvelled as to where they slept or found shelter from the storm. One by one his companions seemed to sink into the bowels of the earth, as the robber before supper seemed to have done, till at last nobody remained but The Lifter.
'I am waiteen to show you to your bed,' the fellow said in a voice as soft as the ripple of an oily stream.
'Why, where on earth does your company sleep?'
'Nowhere on earth,' returned the soft-voiced Lifter.
'Come; we go under the earth;' and taking our hero's hand he led him to what looked like the mouth of a pit. A faint light beneath revealed a sort of step-ladder, and by this Roland, following his guide, descended into what seemed a cavern. The air was not foul, as one might suppose, but there was an earthy smell which at first was disagreeable enough to the nostrils of our hero. Taking a taper, which was left burning below, The Lifter led the way for a considerable distance, and then turning to the right entered a sort of aperture or pocket in the clayey wall to his right. The flickering of the light here revealed a small bed; and setting down the candle the Lifter said:
'This is to be your room while you stay with us; good night.' In spite of the sickening sensation that came over Roland as he entered this underground lair, and the feeling of pain and shame at the part he was compelled to act, he was soon asleep, and dreaming once again of days that held no evil.
THE WAYS OF ROBBER LIFE.
During the night a violent gale blew, rain fell in torrents, and many a proud tree received its death blow when lightning sprang from the low-brooding cloud.
But the face of nature was as bright next morning as a child's face after its own little tempest and its tears have passed, and joy takes possession once again. The sky seemed so clearly blue, that one might think, as I myself often when a child imagined, that in some unaccountable way the rain in falling had washed the sky, and hence it looked upon the morrow cleaner.
White clouds, like frail, wide tangles of thistle-down, drove across the sky and helped to form a vast congregation to leeward.
Overhead, and for a considerable way upon their journey, these clouds are white, but when they begin to form away beyond the reach of the wind, they immediately turn to a pearl grey. Sometimes you will notice a flush of rose, and often little patches of violet; and if to these hues be added no other save the semi-universal cumulus or neutral, you have little cause to fear that the tempest will renew itself. But beware of the purple and the sulky indigo. The purple sometimes clears up and dissolves itself in joyous crimson, or fair-weather pink. I have hardly ever known indigo to relent. When it rolls or steals into the heavens its purpose is tumult; and if you miss its fury be sure that someone else, some other where, will not.
Roland's heart arose as he stood once more under the pure honest heavens, the wholesome air filling his lungs, and the sunshine, despite his lot, creeping into his heart.
And although the bush that clad this swamp was hateful as woods could be, it revealed here and there to our hero's ken a touch of beauty; for among the evergreens several maple, beech, and oak trees had thrust their roots. The dull bronze of the oak, the pale gold of the beech, and the flushed crimson of the maple contrasted richly and often gorgeously with the myrtle of the evergreens.
'Smitten by the beauty of our woods, aye?' the robber enquired.
'Yes; I was looking at that flaming maple.'
'We are not so God-forsaken here as you might imagine, young man. A capital fishing stream runs through the swamp.'
'Are there fish in that lake which I see gleaming through the bush?'
'Plenty of them. Well fed too, ha, ha.' There was something in the tone of the man's voice that made Roland's blood run cold.
'Oh, yes; you will get reconciled to our ways of living sooner than you imagine; and by the time that your wound is healed you will be longing for exercise. But we will give you plenty of it.'
'In what manner, may I ask?'
'Now, how innocent you seem, Mr. Duellist. Why, have I not told you? Have you not heard what the occupation is of the gang of Markham Swamp? Well, you will assist us in keeping up the reputation of the place. But you will not at first get work which only trained hands can do. I shall be considerate enough not to require you to go abroad while the sun is up; but you will bear a hand at night when no moon is to be seen; and when the storm kindly helps to conceal suspicious noises. Now and again, young man, if I must be so plain, I will need you to aid in breaking houses, and gagging noisy fools. Sometimes I will require you to crack a skull, if easier methods fail in the prosecution of our enterprises. I take a fancy sometime for carrying folks away to our curious quarters; some of whom it suits my humour to retain for a time, others of whom I allow to sink into the mysterious hollow swamp. We have not carried away a pretty lass for many months now; and it is quite desolate here sometimes when one has not handsome female eyes to look into his and give him cheer.
'But I have had my eye upon a girl distant far from here. Over a year ago I saw her in her father's orchard gathering peaches. Looking up her eyes met mine, which were burning upon her through the hedge. She gave a shriek of horror and ran away. Never, young man, had my eyes before rested upon a being so fair as this. I might have gone away and strove to think no more about her, but the look of loathing as well as terror with which my face filled her, decided my course. I resolved to have her. Before the spring buds are on the trees she shall be here; and one of the offices I shall reserve for you is to assist me in bringing her hither. I may be able to use you as a decoy; for your face, curse it, seems to find more favour with women than mine.'
'And you brought me here, then, that I might aid you in such works of infamy?'
'Then hear my answer once for all. Death shall be mine before dishonour. Rather than assist you in carrying out the least of your evil deeds I will give myself up to justice.' The robber's face grew as dark as a thundercloud, and a devilish light flashed in his eye. For a moment his hand rested upon the haft of his knife; but only for a moment.
'We shall see,' he replied. 'I have bent more stubborn wills than yours. You will have some time to make choice of my two alternatives. This only have I now to say: If you have any hope of being able to escape hence and get into sheltering territory put it from you. While you stay in this wood watch will always be upon you. Should you manage to escape those who guard you here, I myself will lead the minions of the law upon your track. Now get these words down into your craven heart.'
'I perceive, miscreant,' Roland retorted, his eye flashing, that you understand my code of honour, and take advantage of it. You are aware that falsehood and insolence from such lips as yours convey no insult. But despite your stature, your hungry knife, and your three villain associates, here, even in this den I would not hesitate to inflict chastisement if I could but do it upon grounds of honour. Now, ruffian, you know my will. But defend myself, save from the arm of lawful authority, I always will.' And he faced the robber, who, probably for the first time in his evil life, quailed. Turning upon his heel the chief strode away.
'You have my word,' is all that he said. Roland then perceived that the captain in a stern voice gave certain commands when he joined the group. Murfrey, with a dogged countenance, descended the pit; the respectable Mr. Sykes followed him; and a little later the giant figure of the chief himself disappeared into the hole.
'I was lis'neen. Heard your words to the capteen,' The Lifter said to our hero, in a smooth, even whisper. 'It is surpriseen he didn't stab you.'
Nancy was engaged making for herself a wincy gown; the hag was sewing buttons upon a pair of breeches belonging to one of the highwaymen, and Silent Poll was kneading dough.
'I do not regard it as surprising,' our hero replied.
'My, but that's strange,' quoth The Lifter.
'Two can play at a game of that sort; I do not relish an encounter, but whoever gets my life will have to strive for it. But that is of little consequence. What is on now?'
'If you will just remain standeen where you are and keep your eyes open you will see.'
Presently our hero saw a strange head rise from the cavern; and then the entire figure appeared. The disguise was most complete, and the robber, whichever one he was, held a buck-saw in his hand.
'Off buckeen,' whispered The Lifter. The fellow wore a very ragged coat, and corresponding breeches; but our hero could not remember having seen him before. He stood close to the mouth of the pit looking first at Nancy, and then upon Roland. The jealous glare setted the point in our hero's mind. The disguised ruffian was Murfrey. The next moment out popped a sleek, respectable looking personage, carrying a Bible under his arm, and a walking stick in his hand. He was dressed like a dissenting clergyman, wearing at his throat the white bow that characterizes the Wesleyan preacher.
'The fear of God is the beginning of all righteousness. Tread ye in His ways, my children,' he said, raising his hand above the group. And then pronouncing a benediction, the miscreant departed.
The robber chief next appeared, and him our hero could never have identified. Under his wide-brimmed hat tufts of curly chestnut hair were visible; and his jaws and chin had a huge beard to match in colour.
'Cattle dealer,' whispered The Lifter. The robber's clothing were such as to harmonize with a man who bought and sold horses, bullocks and flocks of sheep. In his hand he carried a heavy, knotted stick.
'We return at moonrise,' he said to the old woman as he turned away.
'Good luck, good luck to ee,' quavered the crone. 'A pocket-full o' yallow shiners for yourself, me fine dear.' And she waved her withered arm after the robber many times. 'Seventy-two years I've lived in this bush, girl an' woman, an' he's the finest one that ever come into it; barrin' my other son the Slugger that the p'lice bagged when he was drunk. But not apeach would he, even when they put the rope around his neck. He's the sort of a man for you to pattern by, my young one,' the old woman said, turning to Roland and addressing him for the first time.
'Why, old dame, ought I be anxious to have myself hanged in the end, as I understand this Slugger was?'
'Bah! you haven't courage enough to earn your hanging. I do not know what the captain wants to bring such coves as you here for,' she said, darting a malignant glance at our hero. 'I would be ashamed to eat other people's bread and accept their shelter, without trying to make myself useful.'
Roland was in one of his irritating moods so he said:
'I perceive that you are a very wicked old lady; and I am quite sure that if the officers could only lay hands upon you, they would give the birds something to peck at. Do you know what they do with bad old ladies like you? Why, they hang them up to trees that stand alone upon a bleak common; that the boys may pelt and the crows may feed.'
The rage of the old gentlewoman was now so great that she was unable to articulate; and when her fury reached the most impotent stage, Roland arose and walked away.
'Do you wish to take a turn with the rod?' Nancy asked.
'Yes, I should like to get out of sight of our uncharitable grandmother here.'
'Hush! I would not advise you to provoke her too far. If you knew what her career of crime has been you would shudder to bring her ill-will upon you. I am afraid you have brought a great danger upon your head.' Our hero and Nancy emerged from the wood and there lay spread before them a lake of shining water, though dark as soot. Its area was probably about twenty acres; and although its depth seemed to be great, a black stump rose here and there from the surface. The two had not walked far when the shrill voice of the old woman was heard calling.
'I must leave you; but I will return as soon as I can. I have many things to tell you and many warnings to give. The Lifter, I think, has taken a great fancy to your ways; and I think you will be able to credit what he says to you. I will join you up the brook and we'll have a fish together. Good-bye, dearie;' and the girl flung a kiss to him from her finger tips and was away.
A minute later The Lifter came whiffling along and joined our hero.
'Well, stranger, what do you think of the parseen?'
'I think that he is a blasphemous villian; and I wonder that God Almighty does not send a bolt from heaven upon such a wretch.'
'But it is said that they have a good deal of patience in heaveen. Well, I think they must or they never would suffer the Rev. Mr. Jonas to walk the earth. I often sit a thinkeen about him; and always come to the conclusion that he is not sincere.'